The US Air Force realised a few years ago that over 20 per cent of the nuclear missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base cheated on their certification exam. Many other officers knew about the problem, but didn’t report it due to a culture of fear that convinced them they had to get perfect test scores to get promoted.
Fear is not risk-management. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Fear kills initiative and “pro-social” behaviours. It renders smart, talented people useless. It suffocates innovation and undermines growth. Business becomes more risky as critical conversations are either avoided or under-addressed.
The part of our brain that serves as our internal panic-button, the amygdala, can be pushed by anything from a new, aggressive competitor in the office or a tyrannical leader, to dirty looks made by your peers as you’re communicating your best ideas.
Whatever the source of the anxiety, there is a predictable pattern of characteristics that define a fearful organisation: an absence of frank and open dialogue, a resistance to participate, only notional alignment (lip service), a reluctance to pass bad news upwards, a culture of going through the motions without any real engagement, and a focus on salient but unlikely catastrophic outcomes. So how can we mitigate the effect of fear?
Emphasise executive level collaboration
Screen directors and executives for their emotional intelligence. Leaders who regularly display emotional outbursts or are bent on crushing internal dissent impose a cost on the organisation. For example, the accounting scandals at the turn of the century involved a litany of charismatic but hard-nosed chief executives such as Richard Scrushy or “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap.
Develop a culture in which the leadership can be challenged. After the Korean Air Flight 801 crash, the airline company implemented a training programme to soften an authoritarian-hierarchical culture that prevented the co-pilot and crew from speaking up, even in a life and death situation.
Track the fear radar
Discuss the topic of fear at high level meetings. Evaluate and address the potential impact that fear-driven behaviours could have on key inter-personal business relationships, information flow, and timely decision-making, especially during turbulent market conditions and business crises.
Knowledge over retribution
Facilitate dialogue where individuals feel safe to openly highlight and discuss near threats and near misses. Conduct no blame-attached business post mortems. For example, many hospitals implement a no fault review of what went wrong after a patient death to elicit suggestions for process improvements.
Speak the truth – authentic dialogue
As a leader, set the tone by being upfront about the issues. Specifically recognise the concerns that individuals may have and admit when you do not have the answer to a question. Celebrate successes, but acknowledge failures and threats. Spark innovation by establishing a platform for employees to pitch their best ideas.
Optimise the reward system
Don’t use overly powerful incentives which often reframe the hope of receiving a reward into the fear of losing it. Design Key Performance Indicators with a behavioural component to deter individuals from focusing exclusively on results at all cost – for fear of missing the objectives.